Pacific Discovery is an educational organization and a labor of love.

Since its inception in 2001, Pacific Discovery has taken more than 2,000 students and many faculty-led groups on our experiential journeys. We value our incredible team of experienced, qualified and passionate Program Instructors. We have an excellent safety record, comprehensive safety management systems and a database of alumni, parents, advisers and faculty, who are happy to be contacted by you, to discuss their experience.

Pacific Discovery has undergone independent safety accreditations with Gap Year Association (USA), Year Out Group (UK), and OutdoorsMark (NZ).

Our summer, semester and gap year programs are grounded in the philosophy of experiential education, where learning is facilitated and hands-on. Our programs are overland journeys, blending cultural immersion, personal and leadership development, volunteer and community service projects, experiential education, wilderness exploration and optional transferable academic credit. Our Mission is to offer the world’s best experiential programs - providing insights into our increasingly global society, developing empathy for other cultures, furthering understanding of international issues, heightening appreciation for the earth’s wild places, and assisting you to stretch and grow.

Our story

Kiwi’s Rachel Sanson and Scott Burnett, founded Pacific Discovery in 2001, utilizing experience gained through working in environmental and outdoor education, teaching, tourism, grass-roots community development and extensive travels. From the start the focus was offering deeply meaningful programs where students would gain new insights and ways of thinking about our world, through educational journeys. These journeys were ethically sound, ensured a positive outcome for host communities, and a lower impact on the environment. Initially based in Oregon, they relocated Pacific Discovery's home to New Zealand in 2005 to raise family.

In 2018 the reins were handed to another kiwi, Zach Johnston. Alongside continued input from Rachel and Scott, Zach’s varied educational and leadership experience made him the perfect person to continue the focus on authentic and inspiring international travel. As a Senior Instructor in Leadership Development, General Manager in the Tourism Industry, Field Based Outdoor Educator, International Expedition Leader, and Operational Ambulance Officer with extensive travel experience around the world, his input into program development and commitment to consistency of service is apparent.

Today, Pacific Discovery runs 25+ programs annually. We continue to be a small and personal organization that strives to offer authentic, inspiring and pivotal experiences.

As an organisation, we remain passionately and personally involved in all aspects of the program, from answering phone and email enquiries, to researching, developing and evaluating programs. We even manage to get out and lead programs from time to time. This means you have a very personalized experience and can trust that we are always focused on providing you with an inspiring and safe journey with Pacific Discovery.

Review Pacific Discovery - Guatemala
Abigail on a yoga retreat in Guatemala

“I cannot say enough nice things about my semester with Pacific Discovery. I overcame challenges of all varieties this semester: physical, mental and emotional. I am a better version of myself now and I have learned so much about myself and who I am.” I would recommend this program to anyone needing a break from school, a change in perspective, or an eye-opening experience. Pacific Discovery is an exceptional program that will provide you with the skills, experiences, and opportunities to challenge yourself, grow as a person, and open up your world. I can say with confidence that I feel ready and excited to travel independently. Taking a gap year has been the best decision of my life thus far. I only wish I could do it over and over again.” Read more Abigail Hasselbrink, 2021
Central America Semester Program

What sets Pacific Discovery apart?

    • Goals - The focus of our programs is assisting students to become more confident, capable and self-reliant, empathetic, environmentally aware, and develop a global perspective. We endeavor to do this without telling students what to think or do. Instead by taking students out of familiar surrounds, putting them in challenging situations and exposing them to different ideas about the world, and through the hands-on nature of the program, and the shared perspective of the entire group, students will be supported to grow and develop along their own unique path.
    • Passion - Our HQ of Pacific Discovery are intimately involved in the day-to-day operations. We believe that our enthusiasm for what we do results in a more powerful, professional and personalized program experience for each student.
    • Integrity - We have personally researched, and work directly with, every accommodation, activity and transport provider, as well as every community and service project our groups undertake. These personal relationships result in surety of the program experience for our students and a better outcome, as local providers value the ongoing relationship they have with us and we reduce the barriers to communication and feedback.
    • Personalized - We work with each student and family to ensure students gain as much as they can from their program experience.
    • Program Design - Our programs are meticulously researched, designed and each program departure is a very special and unique experience. Learn more about Program Design.
    • A Journey - Each of our programs is a deliberate journey of discovery and the various program experiences link and flow together incredibly well.
    • Duration - Our semester programs are 10 weeks duration - two weeks shorter than a standard 12 week academic semester. Our reasoning for this is that we fit a lot into our programs and meet our programming objectives in 10 weeks. We feel that a longer duration is not necessary and does not meaningfully alter the depth of experience or learning gained from our programs. An additional benefit is that students have time to do their own independent experience or travel at the end of the program, building on skills they have developed during the program.
    • Structure - Some organizations advertise a sample itinerary and then have their Program Instructors make the arrangements just before, or even during the program. We expect our Program Instructors to focus on the students’ educational journey during the program and not be distracted by logistics. We make the majority of program arrangements and payments ahead of time so that the group are able to complete the scheduled itinerary and so that the instructors can focus their attention upon their group.
    • Safety - We have an exemplary safety record, and student welfare is our core focus. We have personally visited, assessed and maintain an ongoing relationship with every service project, activity, accommodation and transport provider that we use. Our Program Instructors are trained in safety assessment and management. We also teach and empower our students to assess and manage risk, so they take on some personal responsibility for decisions around their safety during the program. Learn more about our Safety and Risk Management protocols.
    • Accreditation - Pacific Discovery holds Gap Year Association (GYA) accreditation. This is a rigorous and comprehensive accreditation of all aspects of an organizations operation from safety management, to programming, to assessing the validity and worth of service learning projects. Read more about our Accreditation.
    • Program Instructors - We employ experienced professional Program Instructors who have great people skills, extensive in-country experience and wilderness first responder (WFR) first aid qualifications. Their role is 50% leadership, logistics, and managing healthy group dynamics, and 50% teasing learning out of experiences and individually mentoring each student They are vested in ensuring the best possible program experience for each student. Meet our team.
    • Students - We treat our students as adults and encourage personal responsibility. We have high expectations of our students and provide them with the knowledge and the skills to gain as much as possible from the program and to safely pursue their personal goals within the larger structure of the program.
    • Breaking Down Barriers - We reduce the hierarchy so that communication between students and instructors is open, trusting and easy. Our Program Instructors do everything that the students do, not keeping themselves separate from the group. Instructors form a big brother/sister relationship with students. This results in better mentoring of each student, better group dynamics, and more openness, trust, and communication within the group.
    • Supportive Group Dynamics - Students are often surprised at how closely bonded they become with their group mates, how supported they feel, and how powerful this aspect of our programs is. This doesn’t happen magically and everyone on a program contributes to creating great group dynamics and facilitating this is a key focus for our Program Instructors.
    • Quality of Experience - We continually refine and improve our programs. At program conclusion we do a thorough evaluation of all program elements, incorporating suggestions from our students, families, program instructors and local colleagues into future programs.
    • Affordability - Our focus is on offering incredible programs, not on how much money we can make. Our programs are very good value. In a broad comparison to similar programs, we stay in better quality accommodation, charter private transport, include more activities, have greater depth to our programming, and pay our program instructors higher rates - all while keeping our program fees comparable with those of the majority of our competitors. We do this by having stream-lined and efficient systems, keeping administration overheads low, and spending a minimal amount on marketing.
    • Ethics - Our vision is for our programs and organizational practices to have a net positive impact on the world. For us, it's about providing a more rewarding and fulfilling travel experience; being culturally sensitive and minimizing negative impacts on the environment; getting involved with local people – ensuring that our visits benefit the community, and that the local people are involved in decisions that affect their lives. We believe it's important to help conserve the world’s wild places, to travel and live sustainability, and to pay it forward. Learn more about our Philosophy.
    • Values - New Zealanders value honesty, fairness, openness, and treading lightly on the earth (broad generalization). Being an organization founded by New Zealanders, these values permeate through to Pacific Discovery.
Pacific Discovery - Hawaii Program
Danny on a Jurassic World filming location

“I had an incredible experience! The amount that I grew as an individual is astounding. I learned how to be independent and shop for meals while keeping price and budget in mind. I would recommend this program to others because of how much I learned about myself. ” Through the many spiritual experiences that we shared as a group on this program, I was able to straighten out my values and figure out what aspects of life are actually important to me. All in all, I had the time of my life on this trip!” Read more Danny Fournier, 2021
Hawaii Semester Program

Why Pacific Discovery?

When Scott and Rachel created Pacific Discovery, they were two young New Zealanders living in the United States. They were very conscious of the vast ocean between our old and new homes.

Covering 1/3 of the earth’s surface and larger than the entire combined land areas, the Pacific Ocean was named the ‘peaceful ocean’ by Spanish explorer Magellan during a voyage of discovery and the first circumnavigation of our planet in 1521.

Polynesian seafarers had earlier undertaken some of humanity’s greatest journeys of discovery over the 2,500 years preceding Magellan, as they gradually explored and settled the Pacific Ocean, voyaging from Asia to South America, to New Zealand and to Hawaii.

Magellan's voyage was an important early step in an accelerating process of making us aware of ‘our world’, a process that today is of critical importance as we stretch the capacity of our planet to provide for us all.

The name Pacific Discovery celebrates these early journeys of discovery and celebrates the journeys of discovery that our students undertake on our programs, as they deepen their understanding of our world, their understanding of themselves, and understanding the perspectives of others.

Our students undertake a Pacific (peaceful) Discovery - treading lightly on our world, learning the perspectives of others, and in the process becoming a force for peace and humanity.

Our logo incorporates a blue circle representing the Pacific Ocean. Inside this is the silhouette of two of our students. They are looking out from a peak. We love their embrace of the view and an openness to the world in all its richness, beauty and fragility. This moment encapsulates what our programs are all about.

Cooking workshop in Thailand
Tanner on a cooking workshop in Thailand

“I had such a great experience growing and learning about myself. I got an in-depth view of what it’s like to live in Thailand and be apart of a new culture, especially during home stays and visiting rural villages. ” Not only did I get to travel for almost 3 months and see all the beautiful things that Thailand has to offer, I have also seen the hard truth of a developing country and was able to deepen my global perspective. I was challenged and pushed out of my comfort zone and I’m so grateful I got to experience everything I did.

I would say this program was life-changing and exciting. Not only did I grow as a person, I made life long friendships and learned how to deal with situations in group settings. I’ve learned how to be a leader and how to adapt in a new setting, as well as how to be a global citizen and accept new cultures and values. This was a life changing experience not many people will get to have in their lives, and I’m so happy I got to be a part of the lucky few.”
Read more Tanner Barnes, 2021
Thailand Semester Program

Pacific Discovery is an educational organization registered and physically located in New Zealand.

We have undergone and maintain comprehensive safety and programming accreditations with

  • Gap Year Association (USA)
  • Year Out Group (UK)
  • Outdoors Mark (NZ)

We are members of

  • Forum On Education Abroad - advancing best practice in the education abroad field
  • NAFSA - the National Association for International Educators 
  • IEE - the Institute of International Education 
  • Generation Study Abroad – the US government initiative to increase the opportunities for US students to study abroad 
  • Gap Year Association 
  • The Year Out Group 
  • Everyday Ambassadors - A network of people and organizations committed to community centered international education and exchange

We maintain

  • An independently audited safety management system.
  • An independently audited sustainability policy.
  • Comprehensive public liability insurance.
  • Experienced and well-educated Program Instructors who hold relevant tertiary qualifications, Wilderness First Responder (WFR) first aid qualification, and are trained in our leadership, experiential education, facilitation, risk assessment and safety management systems.
  • A database of alumni who have travelled with us, and alumni families, and university and gap year advisors, who are happy to be contacted to discuss their (or their son or daughter's) experience with Pacific Discovery.
  • Program payments are held in a bank trust account till disbursement, meaning that in the event of financial default of Pacific Discovery, student program payments would be protected from creditors.

Did You Know?

  • Annually we run a number of customized programs for high school and university groups. Contact us if you are interested in an educational program for your students.
  • Our Directors speak at conferences and are on the ethics and standards committees for the Gap Year Association (GYA).
  • National Geographic nominated Pacific Discovery among the ‘top 100 travel companies on earth' in 2008 and again in 2009.
Catherine Hawkins
Catherine at school in Cambodia

“I have known Scott and Rachel for several years, and I can recommend them in the strongest positive terms. In my opinion, they run the most impressive student-oriented programs available anywhere. I have led numerous study abroad programs and worked with many other companies over the years, so I am most confident in this assessment.” I worked with Pacific Discovery extensively in the planning, development, and implementation of a Texas State School of Social Work study abroad program to Cambodia and Thailand in winter 2007-2008. This was a three-week in-country program involving fifteen students. I was immediately impressed with Pacific Discovery by their excellent, extensive website, and their quick and professional response to my initial inquiries. They were very attentive to the details of the trip as well as responding to my needs. They gained my full confidence very quickly. Our planning time was shorter than desirable, but they were able to make it all happen very efficiently and effectively. They handled every aspect of the program from start to finish without any problems of any kind, and I truly enjoyed their pleasant, friendly attitude.

Scott was our tour leader, and the students really loved him. I appreciated that he not only managed the logistics of the program so well, but also greatly enhanced the academic quality with his extensive knowledge of Southeast Asia, particularly the history and contemporary culture of Cambodia and Thailand. In addition, Pacific Discovery arranged for several very unique learning opportunities, such as staying with a wonderful family in a village, visiting local schools to interact with students and donate books, volunteering at non-governmental social service agencies, and touring an ecologically-based nature preserve.

I can say that Scott and Rachel changed our lives through this amazing adventure.”
Read more Catherine Hawkins, 2019
Professor of Social Work
Honorary Professor of International Studies
Texas State University-San Marcos